Making Direct Mail Work

Posted by admin on Aug 10, 2018 7:11:57 AM

It’s easy to waste a lot of money very quickly with direct mail. The cost of the “package” as well as postage costs can soon exceed the income and benefits of any program. Here are 14 questions that may help focus your direct mail and make the effort successful for you and your organization.

  1. Are you targeting your mailings? The “shotgun” system of mailing will mail lots of letters but the results may be disastrous. A targeted mailing of 2,000 or 3,000 can be far more successful and efficient than a mass mailing of 50,000. Target your audience by identifying groups such as board members, auxiliary members, clients, former clients, and former donors to get the most out of your mailings.
  2. Does your mailing create the right impression? If it looks like junk it will end up where junk mail usually does. Apply the highest standards to the appearance of your mailing. Never settle for a “just get it out the door” mentality. Ask yourself if you would be impressed if you received your own mailing. Would you take your own mailing seriously?
  3. Is every letter fully personalized? You can get by with “Dear Friend” or “Dear Neighbor”, but not if you want to make an impression. “Dear Ms. Smith” or “Dear Tom” makes a far better impression. There is no excuse for failing to personalize mailings. If you want to convey the message that you care about each individual donor, you need to show this in your mailings.
  4. Does your letter have eye appeal? If your letter isn’t interesting on the outside, it won’t get opened. Likewise, if the contents of the letter are not appealing, the letter will not be read. This is a great place to have someone else look at your entire solicitation package and give you a very critical response.
  5. Does it tell a story? The story that really counts is the story of real people in need. Your organizational goals and objectives may be important to you but they are secondary to donors. Potential donors want to know how you have helped, and will continue to help, real people. People stories are a powerful way to make your request alive and real.
  6. Is your mailing different? A letter that contains something very different will always stand out in the reader’s mind. A token or trinket that ties to your message will compel the reader to read the letter to find out the meaning of the enclosure. One mailing included a small plastic bag with white beach sand and some tiny seashells. The message of the letter was to point out to the reader that our beaches could be this clean if the reader would support the efforts of this environmental organization.
  7. How many times have you used “you’ in the letter? “You” is a magic word in direct mail. Talk to the donor and about the donor. It is what the potential donor wants to hear that is important and not what you want to tell them.
  8. How long is your message? A one page letter is best but two pages can be acceptable if the content remains interesting. Have several people read the entire message to see if their attention wanders at any point in the reading. If it does, rewrite to maintain interest.
  9. Did you remember to ask? You would be surprised at how many letters end without a specific request for a donation. The goal of your letter is to get a donation and this will only happen when a clear request is made for a specific donation.
  10. Are you talking to the reader of your letter? This is a matter of writing style. So many letters use a stilted and formal writing style. This can be cold and formal to the reader and tend to distance you from the reader. A warm and conversational letter that sounds like a friendly chat with the reader is more likely to be read and receive a response.
  11. Are you still using labels? Never use labels on regular business envelopes or solicitation letters. Even on newsletters, labels have become unacceptable. Direct imprinting is a far better choice to keep the personal touch.
  12. Are you going first class? Postage, that is. There are times when third class or nonprofit rate is acceptable, but not on a solicitation letter. If you have targeted your mailing list the message of importance of a first class stamp tells your potential donor how important he or she is.
  13. Do you test your direct mail? If you are a large mailer, it may pay to send your proposed solicitation letter to 10% of your list first and see what the response is. There may be something that you need to change and you can do it before you mail the other 90%
  14. Are you making it easy to reply? A business reply envelope is the easiest way to let your potential donor get back to you. They do not have to find their own envelope, address it or find a stamp. You can also invite the prospective donor to call you or your organization with any questions. An 800 number or your E-mail address makes you seem interested in the donor and willing to talk.

P.S. Have you included a P.S.? Research shows many people read a P.S. to a letter first! It is often a reader’s way of cutting to the chase. Your postscript should restate the reason for your request and the urgency of a reply.

These fourteen questions (and a postscript) might help you take a look at your direct mail and make it work for you.


Dr. Ned Van Maanen, CFRE, is the Executive Director of the Houston and Southeast Texas chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. This article originally appeared in “Developments,” the bulletin of the Greater Houston chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.


Custom Development Solutions, Inc. (CDS) is one of the most sought after fundraising consulting firms specializing in the strategic planning and tactical execution of capital campaigns for non-profits throughout the United States and Canada.  If you have a fundraising question, please call CDS at 800-761-3833 or send an email to info@cdsfunds.com.

Topics: annual campaign, annual giving, Capital Campaigns, direct mail, direct mail response, Fundraising Principles

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